York City Council aims to 'Ban the Box' permanently

Maria Yohn
York Dispatch
York City Councilman Henry Nixon gives the first responders memorial tribute during the 2016 Court of Valor & Safekeepers Shrine Ceremony with York's Observance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In York City, job seekers no longer have to check a box on city employment applications if they have a felony or misdemeanor in their past.

But for the York City Council, the policy that has been in effect for several years isn't enough, and members want to "ban the box" in the most permanent manner possible, via an ordinance that can only be overturned by another ordinance.

Eliminating employment barriers: The council's goal is to eliminate potential barriers to employment for residents with criminal histories, according to Council President Henry Nixon.  

Although no legislation has been passed requiring private city business owners to adopt a similar policy, Nixon is hoping to lead by example and encourage every city business to follow the suit by "banning the box" on their employment applications. 

During a March 12 Facebook Live address, Mayor Michael Helfrich lent support to the council's initiative. 

"To me, it's fair to at least get past that first 10 seconds to actually be evaluated for who you are; what your skills are," he said. "When you have a box to check if you have any kind of criminal history, that just goes into the trash in a lot of cases." 

History of "Ban the Box": The national "Ban the Box" campaign evolved from a grassroots movement organized by the nonprofit organization "All of Us or None" in 2004. As of January 2017, 25 states, the District of Columbia and more than 150 municipalities have adopted the policy, according to its website, bantheboxcampaign.org.

There is no question that criminal history checkboxes create a severe impediment to applicants who are trying to find gainful employment, according to Kevin Schreiber, president of the York County Economic Alliance. 

This is why the YCEA supports the initiative, along with "Clean Slate" legislation and expungement clinics that allow qualifying residents to erase their prior records, he said.

President and CEO Kevin Schreiber, of York County Economic Alliance, speaks during a press conference, regarding the Yorktowne Hotel Project, at Crispus Attucks Community Center in York City, Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Although the program was designed to give job seekers a chance to escape the stigma of their past mistakes, it may come with a heavy dose of unintended consequences, critics caution. 

In recent years, a number of studies have indicated that "Ban the Box" policies can backfire in certain situations, and the victims are typically young, poorly educated black men.

A July 2016 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at how the policies affect young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men.

In the study, the probability of obtaining employment after "Ban the Box" measures were initiated dropped by 5.1 percent and 2.6 percent for black and Hispanic men, respectively. 

Researchers concluded that, in the absence of a checkbox indicating a person's lack of criminal record, employers may fall back on racial discrimination, based on the applicant's statistical likelihood of having been convicted of a felony.

Public vs. private sectors:  One of the latest national studies, conducted by Terry-Ann Craigie of Connecticut College, found that "Ban the Box" policies can be characterized as a success story in the public sector, but in the private sector, the results have been far more mixed. 

In the public sector, applicants with a criminal history had an almost 40 percent greater chance of finding employment, and there was no indication that it came at the cost of increased discrimination against minority applicants.

However, the study could not dispute the existence of racial stereotyping when hiring in the private sector among the few companies that have adopted the policy. 

Schreiber said the mixed results are likely because of a number of factors, including the fact that public sector initiatives might be supported by union influence.

Also, the "Ban the Box" initiative might be impractical in certain areas of the private sector, such as financial institutions that are required by federal law to conduct criminal checks on applicants.

"That's why it probably makes sense to consider it on a case-by-case basis," Schreiber said.

Banning the box only skirts around the edges: Schreiber does not dispute the findings in the studies and notes that the "Ban the Box" program only skirts around the edges of the real issue. 

For example, "Ban the Box" only precludes an employer from placing the checkbox on the initial employment application, but it does not prevent them from conducting a criminal check later in the hiring process, he said.

"Ban the box" is really just for the first point of entry — the application," he said. 

Expungement: For Schreiber, the crux of the issue is the felonies and misdemeanors that hang on an individual's record "like a black cloud."

For this reason, the YCEA, in conjunction with the York Bar Association and other local organizations, hosted an expungement clinic in 2016 that allowed individuals to meet with legal experts to determine if they met the criteria to have their misdemeanors expunged, he said.

Twenty-five of the 75 individuals who participated met the criteria, he said, and future expungement clinics are in the works.

Expungement clinic offered in York City

Legislation: However, Schreiber said that even the expungement clinics are an imperfect solution, as an individual must have the knowledge and resources to attend them.

He supports Pennsylvania Senate Bill 529, otherwise known as the "Clean Slate" bill, introduced by Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, and Sen. Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Delaware and Philadelphia counties.

More:Wagner leading charge on sealing nonviolent criminal records

The bill, which passed the Senate last June, would create a process for individuals with nonviolent misdemeanors to have their records sealed after 10 years with no other offenses, he said.

Even though their records would still be available to police and to certain federal agencies, a candidate could legally say "no" if asked about prior misdemeanors. 

The legislation does not apply to individuals with violent misdemeanors, including sexual offenses and cruelty to animals. 

Competitive job market: Scheiber noted that the national unemployment rate is currently at 4 percent.

As the economy improves, the job market will become more competitive, and prior criminal convictions will continue to determine whether an individual is hired or not, he said.

"These measures are trying to allow for an opportunity for fair chance employment," Schreiber said. "Ultimately, it's about allowing people to compete for jobs based on merit."